Published Nov 16, 2016In a surprisingly smooth transition, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them transports fans of J.K. Rowling's wizarding world back in time from Harry Potter's time at Hogwarts to 1926. After setting the scene with newspaper headlines — a tactic used fairly effectively in director David Yates' previous Harry Potter efforts — that report evil magic mastermind Gellert Grindelwald's globe-spanning attacks, the action begins with Newt Scamander's arrival in New York City, from Britain.
Played by the utterly endearing Eddie Redmayne, Scamander is the crucial link in connecting the world known to Potter fans (readers should recognize him as the author of Hogwarts students' Care of Magical Creatures textbook) to the new series. And despite a few moments of clunky, extra-explanatory dialogue to clarify the cultural differences between British and American wizards ("The no maj." "The what?" "No magic, the non-wizard." "Sorry, we call them muggles."), Redmayne and his co-stars are engaging enough to make the jump overseas mostly seamless.
Distinctly more mature than any of the Potter films, the film focuses primarily on adult characters, with Katherine Waterston proving a suitable onscreen match for Redmayne as Porpentina Goldstein, an extremely driven, but ultimately compassionate ex-auror who encounters Scamander shortly after he arrives in New York. Some of his misunderstood magical beasts escape from his enchanted suitcase, setting off a search that's equal parts adventure and a comedy of errors (with impressive supporting roles from Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol, a "no maj" and Goldstein's sister, respectively).
The world within Scamander's magical suitcase is a visual marvel in which delightfully strange creatures come to life — a particularly greedy niffler and a bowtruckle with attachment issues prove especially memorable (and much less terrifying than some of Rowling's previous creations).
There certainly are moments of absolute terror, though. A sinister side plot (featuring a totally creepy Colin Ferrell as Magical Congress of the United States of America inspector Percival Graves) explores a hateful sect of anti-magic extremists calling for a "second Salem" (led by Samantha Morton as the excellently evil Mary Lou Barebone). Her xenophobic, hate-mongering propaganda against the wizarding community draws darkly relevant parallels to the current political climate, while the abuse she inflicts on her adopted children leads to a profound warning about what can happen when marginalized individuals are pushed past their breaking point.
Many of these characters were created especially for the movie, though it's worth noting that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and most of its magical creatures are based on a short companion book released at the height of Pottermania, intended to mimic Potter and his classmates' own textbook.
Yet the fact that there's so little story to adapt works largely in the film's favour. Where the original Harry Potter films suffered from an inability to translate every tiny, beloved-by-nerds tidbit from the books to the screen, the new Rowling-written Fantastic Beasts allows the author/screenwriter to create a world unto itself that allows viewers to lose themselves in it without comparing it back to an original text.
There are references to names (and maybe even surprise cameos) that will pique the attention of devout Rowling readers, but those unfamiliar with murtlaps, chizpurzles and demiguises don't need to worry and those who are won't be disappointed. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a promising restart to the franchise that lived.